Antique books are a glimpse into the past. Their language, subjects and the style caught in fragile pages communicate another time. I found such a time capsule treasure at an auction over a decade ago entitled Flora’s Lexicon: An Interpretation Of The Language And Sentiment Of Flowers. Printed in 1852 in Boston, the copyright is given as 1839.
The book’s pages are brittle and speckled, like a bird’s egg. Water marks and iron content in the paper create an aged patina. I turn the pages carefully with respect for its one-hundred-sixty-years of survival. Modern books usually “sell” their content on the back cover. Ms. Waterman describes her work in a frontispiece called “advertisement.”
“The language of flowers has recently attracted so much attention, that an acquaintance with it seems to be deemed, if not an essential part of a polite education, at least a graceful and elegant accomplishment. A volume furnishing a complete interpretation of those meanings most generally attached to flowers, has therefore become a desirable, if not an essential part of a gentleman’s or a lady’s library.”
A book to advance “graceful and elegant accomplishment” indeed! When I peruse the book, ever-so-carefully, I am transported to an age more agreeable to Jane Austen than the post-modern era of little social graces in which we live. Speaking of transporting to the time of Austen, fans will want to find the movie Lost in Austen. It is a charming romantic spoof of just such a possibility.
The book is a social tool for the art of courting and romance and does not apologize for the fact. The blue fabric hard cover is decorated with gold gilt cupids and flowers, doves and a central figure that I presume is either Venus or a Grecian beauty of close association. Catharine was correct that gentlemen and ladies of the Victorian Age would do well to acquaint themselves with the language of flowers. This art became the secret means of communicating sentiment. A bouquet was not just a bouquet; it was a mass of hidden meaning. A young man who sends the wrong message could find himself disqualified for a fair maiden’s hand. A fringe of fern meant his feelings were sincere; but if clematis were included, he communicates artifice instead. To compliment a new acquaintance, a gentleman may send Chinese Chrysanthemum to express his appreciation for a lady’s loveliness and cheerfulness. A mum is a cheerful flower, come to think of it! What of the rose, the flower that persists to represent love and romance even now? Ah, but which rose and what color, full-blown or bud? All have their own specific meaning: The Rose Bud is appropriate for a young girl. The Hundred-Leaved Rose or Rosa Centifolia represents not only love but grace.
The White Rose Bud has a lovely history: “Before the breath of love animated the world, all the roses were white, and every heart was insensible. Herrick says, that ‘As Cupid danced among the gods, he down the nectar flung; which on the white rose being shed, made it for ever after red.’ Still the white rose bud is kept for those whose heart knows not love. The yellow rose can mean infidelity; the white rose, silence. The multiflora rose speaks of many charms; the musk rose of capricious beauty. But the lover is wise in choosing the red rose which speaks of beauty and grace. I thought of one who had owned this book and had left their name penciled into the back index page: E. Sargent. Did this person make use of the poetry and sentiment represented by the hundreds of flowers and leaves? It seems E. Sargent did as many notations are marked in the index and the fragile remnants of virtual blooms were found pressed in its pages–a red rose bud, violets with a tinge of purple remaining, even what looks to be strawberry leaves and blossoms. Especially beautiful, precious and rare in antique books are the two full-page prints of floral bouquets, delicately hand-tinted with water colors. A close examination reveals that the color is hand-painted, not printed. Imagine the time given to this detail. Thin tissue paper protects these pages and their brightness proves it effective. To close, think of the lovely language of flowers when the spring wild violets emerge. They represent modesty, nestled timidly in their bower of heart-shaped leaves. It is tradition to gather at least fifty of these blooms, or even one hundred if your sentiments are more extravagant. Present this nosegay to a loved one, friend or family member surrounded by a fringe of its leaves. What better way to celebrate the new season, perhaps on May Day, if they emerge in time.